The first Episcopal Church I ever attended regularly—and the church that changed my entire course of my life—was St. Bartholomew’s in Atlanta, GA. It was the late summer of 2013 and my now-wife and I had recently moved to Atlanta from the northeast so I could attend graduate school at Emory University. We’d carefully selected our apartment location based on approximately two factors: our home base needed to be close enough to Emory that I could take the bus to and from school and it needed to be inexpensive enough for two graduate students to afford the rent.
As for our choice of church, we were prepared to “church shop,” as it were. I was raised in the ELCA, while my wife had few religious affiliations growing up. The reality is that Lutherans don’t have a strong showing in the Atlanta area. Of the churches closest to our house—the ones we could walk to since we didn’t have a car— we had the choice of Baptist or an Episcopal churches. And so, in our first week or two, we set off on the half mile walk to St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church admitting that if it wasn’t a good fit, we’d go further afield. Instead, we walked through the doors of a parish with an incredible team of three priests, a deacon, a seminarian, and a children’s ministry coordinator who felt like our people. I can’t help but think that maybe the actual Saint Bartholomew had a hand in it.
Saint Bartholomew, who was likely the same figure as Nathaniel as named in the Gospel of John, is one of the apostles we know the least about. A friend of Philip’s, Bartholomew is believed to have been the missionary to Ethiopia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and areas that are now part of modern Iran and Turkey. Of these missions, the general understanding is that he was martyred in Armenia, but like the tales of his martyrdom, the most compelling story about him for me is also extrabiblical.
In Francis Bacon’s unfinished work, New Atlantis (1626), Bacon offers the example of a stereotypically modern community based on the mythical island Bensalem. The group rooted itself in logic and the utopian acquisition of knowledge, and included as a centerpoint Salomon’s House, which is a projection of the contemporary research university. Already, this story fits itself to the journey I was on, having been accepted to a PhD program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies directly out of my undergraduate work, but it’s not really the emphasis on knowledge and study that grabs me. No, it’s the thing that happens next, care of Saint Bartholomew. But first, let us take a moment to envision these reason-driven creatures.
In describing Bensalem, Bacon invites us to consider this newly discovered civilization, and particularly Salomon’s House, ‘which house or college … is the very eye of this kingdom’—but the university cannot stand alone. Instead, Salomon’s House only exists because of the deep faith of the Christians of Bensalem, a community that emerged a few years after the Ascension when a copy of the Bible and a letter from Saint Bartholomew seemed to mysteriously appear on a floating ark.
According to New Atlantis, the people of Bensalem are so attuned to wisdom and reason, following Bacon’s scientific method, precisely because, ‘God of heaven and earth had vouchsafed the grace to know the works of Creation, and the secrets of them.’ Faith and reason were deeply intertwined, per the Platonic ideal.
The St. Bart’s that I came to know in Atlanta, the physical church and the community of people there, offered me a particular combination of faith and reason I’d never before encountered in church. In particular, it was where I discovered the work of Godly Play and its well-studied approach to supporting children’s faith development. While I could count on hearing remarkably astute sermons from the pulpit on any given week, it was the care this community took in educating its children and adults that struck me as most distinctive.
Like the people of Bensalem, in the midst of my scholarly ventures, new texts found me, as though they had floated up onto the shore. I was given new resources for faith, the foundation for what is now my life’s work. I received a copy of Jerome Berryman’s Teaching Godly Play and I set to the work of discovery from my classroom at St. Bart’s. Atlanta was fittingly my New Atlantis. It began the story that, like Bacon’s manuscript, remains unfinished but hinges on ‘the grace to know the works of Creation.’ For all that we do not know about Saint Bartholomew, his broader mythology opens to us a life of discovery where faith and reason are one.